There have not been too many solicitors, or barristers for that matter, who have been convicted of murder, writes James Morton. In the 1920s Major Armstrong, who murdered his wife, springs to mind and a few months before him another solicitor, Harold Greenwood, was acquitted of the murder of his. But I can think of only one minister of justice who nearly hanged — Thomas Ley, minister of justice for New South Wales, Australia, from 1922 to 1925.
Ley became deeply unpopular when in 1925 he refused to commute the death sentence on Edward Williams, a destitute music teacher who had murdered his three daughters, despite a recommendation by the jury. He was re-elected to parliament that year but the election verdict was hotly contested by his Labor opponent Frederick McDonald, who claimed Ley had tried to bribe him to withdraw.
On 15 April 1926, on his way to see Premier J. T. Lang, McDonald and all his papers in the case simply disappeared.
Ley had his own law practice and began to dabble in shady property companies. On 3 September 1928, Harry Goldstein, who had been appointed to investigate them, was found dead at the foot of cliffs at Coogee, New South Wales. It was suggested the short-sighted man might have slipped and an inquest returned a verdict of accidental death. Almost immediately afterwards, Ley left for east Asia and then England with his mistress Maggie Brook, widow of a Perth magistrate. He had met her on a ministerial visit in 1922 and shortly afterwards her husband died in sudden and unusual circumstances — supposedly stung by a bee.
In 1931 Ley organised an illegal sweepstake on the Derby and during the war he was involved in the black market. In March 1947 he became convinced the now elderly Maggie was having affairs, first with her son-in-law and then with John Mudie, a barman. Ley agreed to pay £200 to John Lawrence Smith to have the latter kidnapped on 28 November 1946. Mudie was badly beaten and then strangled and his body thrown into a chalk pit.
Ley was traced through letters found in Mudie’s room. In March 1947 the pair were convicted of murder at the Old Bailey. They were sentenced to death but Ley was found to be insane and sent to Broadmoor, where he died on 24 July. Smith’s death sentence was commuted. Despite a campaign to have it removed, Ley’s portrait still hangs in the justice ministry in New South Wales.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor